WE HAVE known for some time that the success of early childhood (EC) education relies on the quality of relationships that key adults have with children, as well as the relationships that adults have with each other (Buysse & Wesley, 2005; Rush & Shelden, 2011). Over recent years, in response to policies and practices that support embedded interventions for young children with disabilities in natural learning environments, there has been an urgent need for providing indirect special supports and services using models of collaborative consultation between early interventionists or EC special educators and parents and/or the EC teachers working with these young children (Buysse & Wesley, 2005). The professional roles and responsibilities of early interventionists, special educators, and EC teachers require them to have a complex understanding of child development, disability-related content, and early education issues. They also need skills to engage in collaborative partnerships with colleagues, professionals from outside agencies, and family members in order to serve as effective change agents, share responsibilities for program success, and improve the quality of EC services to young children with disabilities and their families. Supports for these relationships are reflected broadly in practices recommended by the fields of early intervention and special education (Division for Early Childhood, 2014).
Hence, the professional development of practicing EC professionals is considered critical to the quality of experiences afforded to children (Martinez-Beck & Zaslow, 2006). Research over the past two decades, however, has demonstrated that professional development in the form of 1-day workshops alone for educators may not translate to desired changes in practices. Workshops in conjunction with professional coaching were more likely to result in teachers using new ideas (Joyce & Showers, 2002). Evidence exists for improved EC teacher practices when focused training is followed by on-site mentoring from a coach who provides feedback and support for effective implementation (Fox, Hemmeter, Snyder, Binder, & Clarke, 2011; Onchwari & Keengwe, 2008; Sheridan, Edwards, Marvin, & Knoche, 2009; Snyder & Wolfe, 2008).
Early childhood coaching has become one of the foremost models for providing professional support, whereby an EC special educator, early interventionist, or experienced EC teacher (referred to as “coach”) regularly meets with a parent, child care provider, or preschool teacher (referred to as “coachee”) to help build their competence and confidence to support the needs of children under their care. State and national professional standards and practice guidelines address the importance of such teaming/collaboration among professionals (Council for Exceptional Children, 2014; Division for Early Childhood, 2009, 2014), but these documents do not indicate specific behaviors that would constitute “coaching.”
Hanft, Rush, and Shelden (2004) describe coaching as a “voluntary, nonjudgmental and collaborative partnership that occurs [between the EC coach and coachee] when one desires to learn new knowledge and skills from the other” (p. 1). Coaching in EC programs has been described as reflecting adult learning principles that represent a collection of theories, methods, characteristics, and conditions under which the process of adult learning is optimized (Trotter, 2006). On the basis of the findings from a meta-analysis of adult learning methods and strategies, Dunst and Trivette (2009) indicated that adults learn best when (a) there is active learner participation, (b) their learning has an immediate context in which the content can be applied, (c) multiple opportunities are provided to practice their new skills, and (d) evaluation strategies are used that encourage the learners to reflect and assess whether and how their new knowledge and practices are used.
Competent EC coaches who apply these adult learning principles into their EC/early intervention practices use relational (i.e., trust, effective communication, respect, empathy) and participatory (i.e., shared decisions) help-giving practices during their interactions with the EC teacher- or parent–coachee. The EC coaches' effective use of these help-giving practices can help them establish effective relationships and provide coachees with opportunities to develop and strengthen their abilities for interacting with young children with disabilities and thus level the playing field for a shared ownership in finding solutions to problems (Dunst & Trivette, 1996).
Communication plays a critical role both in EC coaching and in building effective collaborative relationships between coaches and coachees. Effective communication between the coach and the coachee is believed to be characterized by openness, meaningfulness, effective use of silence, and an ability to adapt communication to meet the needs of task and relationship (Friend & Cook, 2010). According to McWilliam (2010), EC coaching involves transactional communication, a two-way reciprocal conversational interaction process wherein both the speaker and the listener simultaneously send and receive messages through verbal and nonverbal means. When engaged in a productive coaching relationship, an EC coach regularly meets with EC teachers or family members and engages in conversational interactions by introducing topics, inviting reflection, engaging in action planning, and sharing information (i.e., feedback and/or suggestions) for the purpose of supporting the needs of children and families (Fox et al., 2011; Hanft et al., 2004; Rush, Shelden, & Hanft, 2003; Rush & Shelden, 2011). In such conversations, the coach and the coachee influence one another's willingness to stay engaged, share, and collaboratively pursue solutions to mutually agreed-upon goals.
Although EC coaching is becoming commonplace in many EC programs, empirical evidence on EC coaching is rather limited. Literature is available on some characteristics that EC coaches should have to be effective partners with their coachees (Dinnebeil & McInerney, 2011; Friedman, Woods, & Salisbury, 2012; Rush & Shelden, 2011; Salisbury, Woods, & Copeland, 2010; Snyder & Wolfe, 2008), and studies to date provide evidence linking coaching to positive child, family, or teacher outcomes (Powell, Diamond, Burchinal, & Koehler, 2010; Romski et al., 2011; Sheridan, Knoche, Kupzyk, Edwards, & Marvin, 2011).
Studies conducted by Rush and Shelden (2011) and Friedman et al. (2012) further investigated what specific coaching strategies were used by EC professionals and contributed to collaborative relationships. Rush and Shelden (2011) identified five core coaching characteristics for EC coaches associated with positive learner outcomes. Friedman et al. (2012) elaborated on this work by highlighting more specific behaviors associated with these characteristics and emphasized use of bidirectional conversational strategies, wherein both the EC coach and the coachee take turns to share information and ideas, ask and respond to questions, and make requests to maintain and establish relationships during the meetings/visits. Joint planning was referred to as planning next steps for what will happen between meetings/visits and included bidirectional exchange of information during conversations. The EC coaches engaged in observation of children in routine activities as well as the coachees interacting with children, either live or on videotape, and used the data for specific or inferential discussion and mutual reflection with the coachee. Action/practice characteristics included both the EC coaches' modeling of useful strategies or approaches and direct teaching (explanation + demonstration), as well as opportunities coaches provided for coachees to practice new strategies and approaches and seek immediate clarification or affirmation. Reflection included problem-solving opportunities for the EC coach and the coachee to analyze what is working, or not working, relative to suggested or newly demonstrated approaches and to refine the coachee's knowledge and confidence to reflect during conversation, answer questions, clarify intentions, generate new ideas to contribute to discussion, and encourage connections with previously discussed topics or suggestions. Feedback by the EC coach was used to help the coachee expand his or her current level of understanding of the topics or specific teaching strategies discussed during meetings/visits by offering specific examples or rationale for suggested changes or the continued or increased use of specific behaviors or approaches. This type of feedback appeared to increase the coachee's confidence and competence for newly learnt skills. Friedman et al. (2012) found that the defined coaching strategies could be used in professional development contexts to help early interventionists learn the “how to” (p. 79) of coaching adult caregivers, and support providers' efforts to build collaborative relationships in several ways.
The adoption and use of coaching in EC/early intervention programs have been challenging because EC practitioners assuming EC coaching roles may not fully understand what behaviors constitute coaching and what it looks like as a collaborative practice. Emerging research has been encouraging, however, and supportive of earlier findings from Joyce and Showers (2002) that offering extended professional development opportunities with coaching practices can foster EC coaches' abilities to (a) use a range of coaching strategies, (b) vary these strategies based on the contexts where the coaching session is conducted, and (c) select relevant strategies based on coachee responses, needs, and interests (Basu, Salisbury, & Thorkildsen, 2010; Cambray-Engstrom & Salisbury, 2010; Friedman et al., 2012). It is as yet unclear what coaching strategies work for whom under what circumstances and how to evaluate the fidelity with which coaching behaviors are implemented in EC programs (Sheridan et al., 2009; Snyder, Hemmeter, & McLaughlin, 2011; Zaslow, Tout, Halle, Vick-Whittaker, & Lavelle, 2010).
In 2011, Rush and Shelden called for further research on specific nuances of coaching practices to support EC coaches and coachees. Specifically, research is needed to determine how frequently key behaviors must be present in an interaction and what specific coaching practices and promotional strategies are important to support EC coachees. Further studies are needed to identify effective ways of documenting the coaching process to further assist in effective implementation of a proposed action plan.
Despite the importance of such work, the focus on what the coach does, or should do, will not address what the EC coachees do to be effective partners with their EC coaches. Descriptive studies that focus on the EC coachee as well as the EC coach could help unveil “what” the quality and content of coaching conversations could or should be to promote a collaborative partnership of trust, respect, and equality. A qualitative study conducted by Knoche, Kuhn, and Eum (2013) investigated the perceptions of EC coachees related to their coaching experiences. The 24 coachees (i.e., EC practitioners and family members) who participated were engaged in different EC education/intervention programs serving children birth to 5 years of age. The coachees reported improved skills in the areas of classroom management, making decisions related to children and families, being able to reflect on their strengths, abilities, and needs, and being more open-minded to change as a result of working with their EC coach. However, the specific supports offered by coaches that led to these outcomes were not investigated. Furthermore, Chang, Early, and Winton (2005) have reported that EC practitioners may have limited or no experience and/or knowledge of how to collaborate with special educators and therapists (i.e., EC coaches) affiliated with the children with disabilities in their inclusive preschool classrooms. Hence, there is a need to understand “what” coachees can do during interactions with EC coaches to help foster this partnership.
This exploratory study specifically unpacks “what” is happening in coaching conversations between EC coaches and their coachees. The study is an initial attempt to provide a picture of the conversational behaviors used by EC coaches and coachees during regularly scheduled coaching conversations. Specifically, this study explores (a) the conversation behaviors used by EC coaches and coachees during one videotaped coaching session and (b) how the observed EC coach behaviors relate to observed coachee behaviors in these conversations.
This study was a part of a broader evaluation of an EC coach training program sponsored by the Department of Education in a Midwestern state. A 3-day training session offered professional development for a group of currently employed EC coaches and focused on the characteristics, behaviors, and principles important to successful EC coaching. The 65 training participants included practitioners from across the state, representing both rural and urban communities. Participants represented different agencies serving young children younger than 5 years and their families. Reported coaching responsibilities focused on the needs of family members, care providers, or teachers associated with one of three primary program or project missions. These included coaching related to (a) children's Individualized Family Service Plans or Individualized Education Plans for children with developmental delays/disabilities, (b) the global quality of classroom environments, and/or (c) teacher implementation of relevant strategies to advance children's social-emotional development in follow-up to professional development sessions. The EC coach training sessions were delivered using both didactic lecture and small group discussion formats and included case study problem-solving opportunities. Training topics included the role of coaches and use of observation, joint planning, reflection, and feedback during the coaching process, with additional attention given to using questions to reflect or clarify, sharing information and feedback in a helpful manner, and providing suggestions that invite shared decision making. Coaches were encouraged to effectively communicate, establish, and maintain relationships with coachees and assist coachees to be an “equal partner” in the coaching process. Participants were asked to outline a coaching action plan before departing the training.
In addition to typical satisfaction surveys following the workshop, participants were invited to participate in a series of follow-up interviews and activities as part of an evaluation of the EC coach training program that would further illuminate their understanding and application of the training content. Furthermore, the follow-up efforts provided opportunity to explore additional aspects of coaching relationships and practices. This report focuses on one set of data regarding the conversations the volunteer EC coaches had with self-selected coachees.
The coaching conversations used for this study were gathered from established EC coach–coachee dyads. Twenty-one EC coaches who attended the state-sponsored training responded to invitations to participate in post-training follow-up activities. These 21 EC coaches represented a broad range of EC contexts, settings, and programs that used EC coaching to support the practices and professional development of EC teachers and/or parents of infants or preschool children. The 21 EC coaches had a mean age of 37 years and were all female and self-reported as Caucasian. The education levels for the EC coaches ranged from some college coursework (6%) to graduate degrees (35%); 47% had EC-related teaching endorsements. On average, these coaches had 15 years of work experience in EC programs and they had an average of 5 years in the role of EC coach. Coaches included nine EC educators, two EC special educators, and one to three each from the fields of psychology, social work, and occupational therapy. Table 1 provides a summary of the coach demographics.
Coachees were nominated by one of the EC coaches in the study. No specific guidelines were provided to coaches for selecting their coachees. A total of 24 coachees agreed to participate; three coachees shared the same EC coach, but all coach–coachee dyads had worked together for 3–36 months before the study began. Table 1 summarizes the coachee demographics. Coachees included 11 preschool teachers, 10 child care providers, and three parents. (Note. Five preschool teachers did not return demographic surveys.) These female coachees had a mean age of 31 years. All responding coachees had completed high school, with 20% of the child care providers and 67% of the parents, respectively, completing some college courses; 50% of the child care providers and 67% of the preschool teachers completed degree programs, whereas 10% of child care providers and 33% of preschool teachers had completed some graduate coursework. On average, coachees who were preschool teachers or child care providers had 8.5 years of EC work experience and 3.9 years tenure in their current positions.
The coaching conversations used in this study reflected regularly scheduled and mutually agreed-upon meeting times and places for each EC coach and coachee dyad. These meetings were held in a variety of private locations, including family homes and preschool classrooms, before or after children were present. Routine meetings were scheduled one to four times monthly and varied by program requirements and needs and typically lasted 30–60 min. The focus of the conversations and meeting agendas varied as a function of the program goals. For example, some dyads discussed results of recent observations of program quality whereas others focused their conversations primarily on strategies to minimize children's social problems or promote overall development.
The Early Childhood Coaching Conversations (ECCC) coding system (Knoche & Bainter, 2012) was developed to provide information about the behaviors exhibited by EC coaches and their coachees during typical coaching meetings/conversations conducted for the purpose of promoting new or enhanced skills and knowledge in the teacher/parent. Although it is recognized that many factors influence the coaching process, the 13 coach behavior codes chosen for the ECCC coding system reflected the work of Rush and Shelden (2011) and Friedman et al. (2012) and were intended to represent the core components of coaching as conceptualized during the EC training program while also capturing relevant behaviors that might be observed but not explicitly covered in the training. The intent was to provide a picture of coaching interactions between coaches and coachees and represent their interrelatedness. The bulk of the codes are coach behavior codes because they were the main focus of the training. The purpose of developing codes for the six coachee behaviors was to assess the possible relationship between coaching behaviors on coachees' participation in the session. Table 2 describes the coach and coachee behaviors as defined in the ECCC coding system.
Each coach–coachee dyad was videotaped once in a regularly scheduled meeting time and location, as arranged by the EC coaches. All 24 videotaped coaching sessions were viewed by a trained reliable coder. Initially, the coder viewed each videotape for 5 min to allow for an introduction to the context of the particular interaction between the coach and the coachee. The video was then viewed from start to finish, stopping every 2 min to code behaviors listed on the ECCC, for both coach and coachee as present/not present. By coding behaviors across discrete intervals, an aggregate of behaviors was analyzed, as well as patterns of behaviors that occurred at different intervals during the coaching session. Results are reported for the group of 21 coaches and group of 24 coachees in mean rate per minute per group.
Two independent coders were trained to use the ECCC coding system and were required to be 80% reliable across all 19 codes. To prepare for coding, all coders participated in multiple face-to-face training sessions and many individual feedback sessions during which the focus was (1) learning the codes with their corresponding definitions, (2) learning how to record data, and (3) coding an entire tape from start to finish. Each coder coded two consecutive practice tapes to reliability before coding the data set for this study. Overall, the ECCC coding system was found to be a reliable measure (K = .76) across coach and coachee behaviors.
Because of the variable length of each coaching session, descriptive statistics were used to summarize the mean per minute rates of observed coach and coachee conversational behaviors. Pearson product–moment correlation coefficients were computed to assess the relationships between observed behaviors of EC coaches and their coachees. No dyadic discourse analyses were pursued.
Figure 1 provides a summary bar graph of the mean rate of observed conversation behaviors across all EC coaches; dotted lines represent the range of individual rates for the 21 coaches. Verbal acknowledgment, nonverbal acknowledgment, and clarifies intent were the most frequently noted coaching conversation behaviors. These behaviors occurred at rates of once every 1–1.5 min. Encourages connections between conversational topics, establishes/reestablishes relationships, uses feedback, and shares specific observations were all less frequently observed behaviors in coaches, at rates of once every 5–10 min. Other behaviors, such as shares information, asks questions for input/reflection, introduces new topics, promotes joint planning, and shares inferential observations, were moderately used at rates of once every 2–4 min.
The frequently observed behaviors that were taught in the EC coach training program were use of questions (to reflect/clarify), sharing information, providing suggestions, and joint planning. Although the coaches were taught about the use of feedback and inferential observations, the use of these behaviors were less frequently observed and showed greater variability across this group of coaches. On the contrary, the frequently observed behaviors, verbal and nonverbal acknowledgment, were not explicitly taught in the EC coach training program, nor were the less frequently observed behaviors, establishes relationships and encourages connections between conversational topics.
Figure 2 provides a summary bar graph of the mean rate of observed conversation behaviors across all coachees during one videotaped session with their respective coaches. The coachees most frequently contributed to or elaborated on coach input and used verbal acknowledgment behaviors during conversations with their coaches. These two behaviors were noted at rates of once every minute. In contrast, coachees asked questions/made requests, proposed new ideas, or participated in the coaching relationship less frequently (i.e., once every 4–6 min) and introduced new topics during their conversations with the EC coaches at mean rates of once every 17 min.
Relationship between coach and coachee behaviors
A number of significant associations were noted between coach and coachee behaviors (Table 3). A large positive association was found between the coachees' participation in the coaching relationship and the coaches' use of behaviors to establish/reestablish the relationship. More specifically, the coachees' contributions to or elaborations on the coaches' input and their proposal of new ideas were positively associated with the coaches' behaviors focused on establishing these relationships. Similarly, moderate but positive associations were noted for the coachees' participation in the relationship and coaches' engagement in joint planning; these coach behaviors also were associated with the coachees' proposal of new ideas. Coaches' verbal acknowledgments, clarifications, and suggestions were all moderately associated with the coachees' contributions/elaborations, verbal acknowledgments, and use of questions.
Negative, moderate, significant associations were found between the coaches' introduction of new topics and coachees' introduction of new topics, coaches' use of feedback and coachees' proposal of new ideas, and coaches' sharing observations and coachees' use of questions/requests.
This exploratory study highlights the conversational behaviors that were used by EC coaches and coachees during regularly scheduled meetings. The innovative ECCC coding system helped focus observations on coach and coachee behaviors during coaching interactions and document presence/absence of behaviors, including those introduced in the EC coach training program. These observed behaviors reflect some of the nuances associated with the coaching process and help describe specific conversation behaviors that may enhance the coachees' competence and confidence to engage in collaborative practices with EC coaches. Bivariate correlations provide a hint of possible associations between the EC coaches' behaviors and coachees' participation during conversations.
There were key characteristics of productive coaching conversations evident in the coded interactions. Both EC coaches' and coachees' frequent use of verbal and nonverbal acknowledgment behaviors during interactions suggest that interactions were not unidirectional but two-way and included listening as well as speaking for both players and made a climate for relational help-giving possible (Dunst & Trivette, 2009; McWilliam, 2010). The EC coaches' ability to share information, in particular, and the coachees' responses to and elaborations on EC coaches' comments or questions support reports of coachee preferences for collaborative practices that can build their competence and confidence as an equal partner in the coaching process (Friedman et al., 2012).
On the contrary, some key coaching behaviors occurred with less frequency. The EC coaches spent less time inviting questions that promote reflection, sharing observations, and engaging in joint planning. The use of these behaviors is thought to be critical during conversations to help both EC coaches and coachees stay engaged and collaboratively pursue solutions to mutually agreed-upon goals (Rush & Shelden, 2011). The coachees spent the least amount of time asking questions/making requests and proposing new ideas. Currently, there is no evidence about “what” behaviors coachees must engage in during interactions with EC coaches to foster partnerships. However, we can hypothesize here that these behaviors would be useful for “leveling the playing field” for a shared ownership of problems and goals and a decision-making process during interactions (Dunst & Trivette, 1996).
Overall, the results indicate great variability in the use of conversation behaviors. The variability may be explained by (a) the individual nature and history of each coach–coachee dyad, (b) the primary topic of conversation in each videotaped session, (c) the goals of the specific EC coaching program, (d) individual coachees' needs and wants, and (e) each coach's and coachee's comfort level in the use of these behaviors as part of the coaching process. However, a look at the most prominent coach and coachee behaviors observed, such as frequent use of verbal and nonverbal acknowledgment behaviors during interactions, the EC coaches' ability to share information, in particular, and the coachees' responses to and elaborations on EC coach comments or questions, suggest that dyads were demonstrating some of the behaviors promoted in the training and literature as advantageous to successful collaborative partnerships (Dunst & Trivette, 1996; Friedman et al., 2012; Friend & Cook, 2010; McWilliam, 2010; Rush & Shelden, 2011). Questions remain, however, about how frequently or in what combination each of the characteristic behaviors should be used during coaching conversations to effectively engage in relationship building, shared ownership, and true partnership.
The correlations observed in this exploratory study between coach and coachee behaviors further support the possibility that specific behaviors can yield active participation by both partners during scheduled meetings and foster collaborative practices. Early childhood coach behaviors that focused on establishing relationships positively related to coachees' proposal of new ideas and contributing/elaborating on coaches' input. Therefore, by using interactions and conversational exchanges that convey support and care, EC coaches can possibly build an environment of trust, respect, and sense of equality during their interactions. This may help coachees become more willing, active, and confident participants. Engaging in “small talk,” in the form of sharing personal information, is often associated with establishing relationships and can possibly level the playing field and invite coachees' perspectives. In turn, coaches can recognize what coachees have to offer and enable coachees to enrich the relationship and problem-solving process. Thus, a collaborative relationship can be built to seek mutual pleasure in supporting children's learning and development.
Furthermore, the EC coaches' promotion of joint planning positively related to coachees' participation in the relationship and proposal of new ideas during conversations. Engaging in interactions that involve joint planning (i.e., discussing who will do what, when and by when, and what roles each player will assume) helps build a systematic road map about next steps that EC coaches and coachees can follow. Inviting the coachees' perspectives in this process can help coaches identify coachees' priorities for support, get them talking more about their ideas and experiences, and help them develop a sense of ownership for a shared decision-making process.
Early childhood coaches' use of behaviors such as sharing specific observations and feedback, however, was negatively associated with coachees asking questions/making requests and proposing new ideas during these videotaped coaching sessions. Although sharing observations and using feedback are crucial components of the coaching conversation process (Rush & Shelden, 2011), the results raise possible questions about these EC coaches' frequency, intensity, and tone of sharing observations and using feedback during coaching conversations. Feedback on observations can be effectively utilized to foster coachees' participation and engagement. Specifically, if done in a manner that reflects objectivity and promotes shared reflection, the use of observational data and feedback could invite coachees' contributions.
It must be acknowledged, however, that the small and select sample used for this study limits generalization of findings and the data must be interpreted cautiously, given the coaches' self-selection process to videotape a coaching session with their chosen coachee. Furthermore, we have no data with which to compare our findings in terms of frequency of conversational behaviors, so we are limited to describing only higher and lower rates of occurrence for this sample. In addition, the current study did not explore the specific qualitative nature of coaching conversations. Larger samples and more detailed analyses are needed to more specifically describe the pattern of coach–coachee interactions and their relationship to successful partnerships for children with disabilities. Future analyses are needed to investigate whether EC coaches display different coaching conversation behaviors given differences in their coaching session topics, and whether coachees display different conversation behaviors, given differences in their roles (EC teacher vs. parent).
Rich observational data on coaching conversation behaviors can have positive implications, however, and inform our understanding of what to include in professional development supports for EC coaches working across a range of EC contexts and how to design training content for those new to EC coaching. The current study complemented previous studies that showed not only the benefit but also limitations of workshop-only professional development efforts because not all the behaviors highlighted in the EC coach training program were evident in the coaches' interactions with coachees. Follow-up coaching sessions that focus on the individual coach behaviors observed and action plans and practice/feedback sessions for improvement could prove beneficial. Preliminary efforts with such a process involving a subset of these coaches are promising (Jayaraman, Kuhn, Bainter, & Marvin, 2014).
Furthermore, data such as those reported in this study may guide us in educating EC teachers and parents on how they might participate in coaching sessions to maximize the coaching process. This exploratory study helps bridge a gap in the literature by investigating the nuances associated with the coaching conversation process and associations between the EC coaches' behaviors and coachees' participation during conversations. There is, however, a need for a larger conceptual framework of effective EC partnerships to understand (a) what qualities and skills coachees bring to effective EC partnerships, (b) what factors influence successful partnerships between EC coaches and coachees, and (c) what contributes to the necessary synergy needed for the benefit of children and families. The current study begins to illuminate the path toward such a framework. Future research that focuses on the contributions and challenges of the EC coachee as well as the EC coach can help further our understanding of effective EC partnerships.
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coach; coaching; collaborative practices; conversations; early childhood; partnerships; professional development